#REVIEW: King of the Rising, by Kacen Callender

I was not a huge fan of the first volume of Kacen Callender’s Islands of Blood and Storm duology, Queen of the Conquered. Feel free to click through to the review, of course, but the short version is that I felt like the book was both too ambitious for its own good and a main character who was not only not especially likable to the reader but was also flatly detested by literally every single character in the book. It had potential, though, and I decided to keep an eye on Callender in the future although at the time I wasn’t committing to picking up the sequel to the book.

Well. Kacen Callender is from St. Thomas, in the US Virgin Islands, and I hadn’t read a book from there last year, so …

It took a while to get to it; in fact, when I picked it up yesterday it had been on my unread shelf since 2021, and had spent more time there than any other book on the shelf. I honestly just picked it up to get it out of the way, and for a brief moment I considered not actually reading it, since it’s not like the Read Around the World thing is something official any longer.


It’s a lot better.

King of the Rising begins exactly where Queen of the Conquered left off, at the beginning of a massive slave revolt on an archipelago colonized by the white-skinned Fjern, and if you want the historical equivalent you need nothing more than to recall that Callender is a St. Thomian, and St. Thomas was colonized by the Dutch. What makes this a fantasy novel and not just thinly-veiled historical fiction is the existence of Kraft, which is basically X-Men style magical powers that some of the characters possess. Kraft, if I’m being honest, is the weakest part of the book and in general its main role in the plot is to give the main character of this book and the main character of the last book a way to communicate with each other across long distances.

That switch in narrators is probably the singe change that that played the biggest role in my enjoying this book more than Queen. Sigourney was kind of rough as a narrator. She was very passive in a lot of ways and literally everyone hated her, and she just wasn’t a great choice as an MC. This book is told from the perspective of Løren Jannik, her half-brother, and while Sigourney still plays a pretty significant role in the story, Løren is a much more dynamic character than she was. He is still flawed, certainly; one of the major themes of the book is leadership during crisis, and the book isn’t interested in backing away from his failures as both a leader of the revolt and as a person in general. But the main thing is that he makes decisions during the book and while some of them are definitely bad decisions, at least he acts throughout the course of the book. Sigourney was just too passive, and pushing her offscreen or at least into the background made King of the Rising a superior read.

I probably should have put this first, but, like, you don’t need a trigger warning for this one, do you? Because this book is about a slave revolt against a colonial slave power, with everything that implies, and it can be a really fucking rough read. If you read Queen of the Conquered you should absolutely pick this up even if you didn’t particularly like it. If you did like Queen, I feel like you’ll really enjoy this one.

#REVIEW: Queen of the Conquered, by Kacen Callender

I generally don’t write reviews of books that I didn’t really like. There are a couple of exceptions here and there, where I really hated something and wanted to let others know of said hatred, and at least one bad review of a book by an author I really like that has honestly gotten more attention than I’ve wanted it to. And while I certainly didn’t hate Queen of the Conquered, I didn’t like it very much either, but there’s enough about it that’s interesting that I’m writing about it anyway.

Let’s start on a positive note: this book’s struggles are all with structure and character, but the writing itself is of high quality. Feel free to take this review with as much salt as necessary, because the things that bothered me may not bother other people, and Callender’s skills as a wordsmith are above average. While I’m not certain I have any further interest in this particular series, I’ll be keeping half an eye on them in the future and I can imagine buying more of their books later on. And, again, the subject material and setup is pretty damn interesting; getting to a point where you’re writing a book I pick up is half the battle.

So, that subject: Queen of the Conquered is set on an archipelago that has been conquered and colonized by people who aren’t specifically identified as Dutch or maybe Scandinavian (the book isn’t set on Earth) but certainly scan that way, and the dark-skinned natives are held as slaves. The main character, who has several names throughout the text and who I’m going to call Sigourney for consistency, is half-native but because of Reasons is effectively a member– if a despised member– of the ruling, white-skinned colonialist class. She is also one of a smaller number of people, some colonizers and some colonized, who have what is referred to as Kraft and what are effectively (non-superheroic) X-Men style mutants, as no one’s Kraft works like anyone else’s. There’s a woman who can make anyone feel pain at any time, and a dude who can ask questions that must be answered honestly, and another who can create fear in other people, but no, like, metal skin or laser blasts or anything like that. Sigourney’s Kraft allows her to see into the minds of other people and influence their thoughts or sometimes take over their bodies; there are scenes where she is attacked and she fights back by sequentially taking over her attackers and having them kill themselves.

See the tagline on the book up there, “They will know her vengeance”? The basic plot of the book is Sigourney’s plan to be named as regent by the king of the archipelago and take over the islands, then to slowly destroy the ruling class from within, even though from the beginning all of them hate her– including a husband who she basically forces into marriage– and the plan is rather underpants gnomey throughout the book.

Spoiler alert: they will not know her vengeance, at least not in this book. They will know some vengeance, but it won’t be Sigourney’s; one of my major gripes with this book is just how passive she is throughout the book. She talks a lot about her plan to be named regent, but never really does anything about it, and the really weird thing is that throughout the book someone else is killing off a lot of the ruling class and while Sigourney is getting blamed for it by all the white people she doesn’t actually have any idea who is doing all the killing and spends good chunks of time hiding in her mansion and being worried that someone is going to cut her head off.

There’s a lot going on here that is interesting: Sigourney’s relationship with her husband, who hates her, and her relationship with her husband’s black half-brother, who also hates her (everyone hates her; be prepared for that) and the simple novelty of a book written from inside the head of someone who is of the same blood as all the enslaved people around her (many of whom are enslaved by her) and who is therefore despised by literally every other character in the book, even her closest allies, and who is trying to navigate the racism of those in her class and the (entirely reasonable) class-and-oppression based hatred of her own slaves– it turns out that “you look like us but are enslaving us anyway” is not a reason for people to like you– along with trying to bring her own plan to conquer the islands and free those slaves, but without anyone who she can confide in about that plan, because, again, everyone hates her.

(There is also a really interesting conversation where her husband’s half-brother, who, remember is enslaved by that half-brother and therefore by her as well, forces her to cut through the underpants gnomery of her plan and think about what she’s going to do with all these former enslaved people once– if– her plan works, and her utter befuddlement at the idea that she’d lose some of her privileges is really a thing to read.)

Figuring out who is doing all of the killing by the end of the book is an interesting measure of how much you buy into the racist structure of the world Sigourney lives in, by the way, and the fact that she herself doesn’t figure it out demonstrates nicely where in that structure she really thinks she belongs.

Ultimately I think the weight of all of this just became overwhelming for the author; this is a really interesting setup but it’s balancing an awful lot and the combination of narrative complexity with a fairly passive main character who can’t really talk to anyone so she just spends a lot of time thinking and reflecting and living in her own head– which is kind of boring, honestly– ends up really hurting the book. This was a three-star for me; not at all bad enough that I’d call it bad, as what it is is a novel with a lot of promise and some serious problems, but not good enough to really recommend it. If after reading this you think this might be worth a look at anyway, I’d go ahead and follow that impulse, but maybe try and get it from the library if you can.